US President Barack Obama urged outreach to local communities as part of the fight against radicalization and extremism, and emphasized the "peaceful nature" of Islam, as the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) summit gets underway at the White House.
"Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIL promote a twisted interpretation of religion that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims. The world must continue to lift up the voices of Muslim clerics and scholars who teach the true peaceful nature of Islam," Obama wrote in an op-ed for the LA Times on Wednesday. "We can echo the testimonies of former extremists who know how terrorists betray Islam. We can help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the Internet," he stressed.
He added that "the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders," and noted that today's summit agenda includes presentations by "community leaders from Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston," who "will highlight innovative partnerships in their cities that are helping empower communities to protect their loved ones from extremist ideologies." But local communities can only do so much, the president noted, without freedoms given to them by the state.
The president further noted, "Governments that deny human rights play into the hands of extremists who claim that violence is the only way to achieve change," emphasizing that "efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies." "Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity," he said.
The Obama Administration's approach to the three-day summit, which kicked off on Tuesday, has drawn criticism for its focus on Muslim communities, despite its use of the broader term "violent extremism." Only toward the end of his op-ed did the president note that terrorism does not stem solely from Muslim communities.
"Pluralism has at times been threatened by hateful ideologies and individuals from various religions. We've seen tragic killings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and at a Jewish community center in Kansas last year," he said. "We do not yet know why three young people, who were Muslim Americans, were brutally killed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina," added Obama.
"But we know that many Muslim Americans across our country are worried and afraid. Americans of all faiths and backgrounds must continue to stand united with a community in mourning and insist that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship," he went on.
His Administration's "campaign" against violent extremism "is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds," the president affirmed, and pledged that the CVE summit will "show once more that - unlike terrorists who only offer misery and death - it is our free societies and diverse communities that offer the true path to opportunity, justice and dignity."